“Precarious” work and industrial organisation in modern Britain

The writer is a veteran USDAW shop steward in the north of England

The British trade union movement is in a strange place at the moment. It is at a historic low in terms of numbers of members, and that has been the case for a while. But within that, the movement is experiencing little ups and downs. The success of Corbyn and the left of the Labour Party has given unions a new boost of self-confidence, in terms of both organisational and political challenges. Though there still exists, a fundamental problem at the heart of British trade union organising; we have not moved with the working class.

The idea that precarious work is some new thing is demonstrably nonsense. Go back forty years and manual labourers of most types would turn up in the morning to find the shift already full. Go back even further, and terms and conditions making work reliable was just a pipe dream for all but the most vital of industries. And yet, there is something new about the most recent wave of service industry-based precarious work. It is now the only mode of work for huge swathes of the working class, particularly in northern towns. In my town, if you don’t work for a supermarket, then you work in a smaller shop, in fast food, or maybe a restaurant or pub chain. And that’s it. If you don’t, then you don’t work in town. The local government employees are the only other group of workers of any notable size, and funding cuts have meant they’re a skeleton crew.

So the daily reality for the majority of people in these areas is low pay and low-hours “flexible” contracts. British trade unionism has fundamentally failed to adapt to this reality, and I believe this is because the organisational model they use in this country just doesn’t fit the people they’re trying to organise. Militant or otherwise, trade unions are failing to mobilise the fastest-growing sections of the working class. The militant section of British trade unionism is active, politically very good and generally on the left of the labour movement. But it’s relatively small, and not where the bulk of the class is. Active, militant unions are in declining, small or stifled industries (RMT, NEU, UCU etc).

The non-militant section of our movement is politically stunted but rife with potential and it’s the section of the union movement most associated with precarious workers. USDAW (The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) is one of the largest and fastest growing unions in the UK, and it’s active in the biggest private sector employer in the country, Tesco, as well as other major retailers, offices and smaller workplaces. It has a relatively high membership percentage in most of its workplaces. The potential economic power at the fingertips of USDAW’s membership is staggering. It is estimated that as much as one in every seven pounds spent in the UK is spent at Tesco. Co-ordinated strike action, or even just the prospect of it, would move not only the employer but the government to action immediately. Tesco’s workers could quite feasibly hold a gun to the head of the British economy in the name of worker’s rights and do so successfully.

So, what’s stopping them? Part two coming next week.


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